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White House: Russian prestige on the line in Syria

Published: Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

WASHINGTON (AP) – The White House tried Wednesday to pin the success or failure of a diplomatic option to secure Syria’s chemical weapons on Russia rather than the United States as Secretary of State John Kerry headed for Geneva to work on a Russian proposal for international inspectors to seize and destroy the deadly stockpile.

On a different diplomatic front aimed at taking control of the stockpile away from the Assad government, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council met Wednesday at Russia’s U.N. mission to consider goals for a new resolution requiring Syria’s chemical weapons to be dismantled. They left without commenting, but whether a U.N. resolution should be militarily enforceable was already emerging as a point of contention.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in an opinion piece for The New York Times, called for caution in dealing with Syria, saying that a potential strike by the U.S. would create more victims and could spread the conflict beyond Syria as well as “unleash a new wave of terrorism.”

Rebels who had hoped U.S.-led strikes against the Syrian government would aid their effort expressed disappointment, if not condemnation of the U.S., over President Barack Obama’s decision to pursue diplomacy in the wake of a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs last month that the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people.

“We’re on our own,” Mohammad Joud, an opposition fighter in the war-shattered northern city of Aleppo, said via Skype. “I always knew that, but thanks to Obama’s shameful conduct, others are waking up to this reality as well.”

With the American public focus on diplomacy rather than military might, Vice President Joe Biden and senior White House officials summoned House Democrats and Republicans for classified briefings. The sessions followed up Obama’s nationally televised address Tuesday night in which he kept the threat of U.S. airstrikes on the table and said it was too early to say whether the Russian offer would succeed.

White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to put a deadline on diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff but said that bringing Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile under international control “obviously will take some time.”

“Russia is now putting its prestige on the line,” he said. Asked whether U.S. prestige also was on the line, Carney said: “The United States leads in these situations. And it’s not always popular and it’s not always comfortable.”

On Capitol Hill, action on any resolution authorizing U.S. military intervention in Syria was on hold, even an alternative that would have reflected Russia’s diplomatic offer. Senators instead debated an energy bill.

“The whole terrain has changed,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters after a meeting of Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We want to make sure we do nothing that’s going to derail what’s going on.”

That didn’t stop Republicans from announcing their opposition to Obama’s initial call for military strikes and criticizing the commander in chief. Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., accused the president of engaging in “pinball diplomacy.” However, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., an outspoken advocate of aggressive U.S. military intervention, said he was concerned that the Russian plan could be a “rope-a-dope” delaying tactic while “that the slaughter goes on.”

In the column posted on The New York Times website Wednesday, Putin asserted that it is “alarming” that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries “has become commonplace for the United States.”

“Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it,” Putin wrote. “Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan ‘you’re either with us or against us.’”

Putin said he favored taking advantage of Syria’s willingness to place its chemical arsenal under international control and welcomed Obama’s interest in continuing to discuss Syria with Russia. “If we can avoid force against Syria, this will improve the atmosphere in international affairs and strengthen mutual trust,” he wrote. “It will be our shared success and open the door to cooperation on other critical issues.”

Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke by phone in advance of their meeting in Geneva on Thursday. “They discussed the outlines of the schedule and their shared objective of having a substantive discussion about the mechanics of identifying, verifying and ultimately destroying Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile so they can never be used again,” the State Department said in a statement Wednesday evening.

Obama said the United States and its allies would work with Russia and China to present a resolution to the U.N. Security Council requiring Syrian President Bashar Assad to give up his chemical weapons and ultimately destroy them.

Russia and China, both permanent Security Council members, have vetoed three Western-backed resolutions aimed at pressuring Assad to end the conflict. That has left the U.N.’s most powerful body paralyzed as the war escalates and the death toll surpasses 100,000. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon earlier this week called the council’s paralysis embarrassing.

“What the secretary-general has been pressing for is the Security Council to come to a united decision,” U.N. associate spokesman Farhan Haq said Wednesday. “It’s crucially important at this late stage of the war that they come together and take some action that can prevent both the problems regarding the use of chemical weapons and the wider problem of solving this conflict.”

American ships in the Mediterranean Sea remained ready to strike Syria if ordered, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said. Syrian rebels appeared skeptical the U.S. forces would be put to use, saying the Americans have repeatedly reneged on promises to assist their rebellion. They point to Obama’s statement in June that he would provide lethal aid to the rebels and that none that assistance has yet gotten to the opposition. Meanwhile, the Syrian leader’s forces have gained the advantage.

“Assad’s regime is going to be stronger because while they’ve agreed to give up their chemical weapons, they get to keep everything else to fight the opposition that has lost territory in the past year and has now suffered a big blow,” said Ayham Kamel, a Middle East analyst at the Eurasia Group in London. “The opposition will struggle with morale and sense of purpose.”

Violence continued Wednesday when government warplanes hit a field hospital in the town of al-Bab near Aleppo, killing 11 people and wounding dozens more, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The group, which relies on reports from activists on the ground, said a Yemeni doctor was among those killed in the airstrike.

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Associated Press writers Donna Cassata, Nedra Pickler and Josh Lederman in Washington, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, and Barbara Surk and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.

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On Twitter, follow Julie Pace at —http://twitter.com/jpaceDC and Nancy Benac at —http://www.twitter.com/nbenac

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